Miss Slaone opens with its title character, a high-powered Washington lobbyist, speaking directly to the camera, delivering a crisp, precisely worded monologue laying out how to beat one’s opponent through wit and misdirection. It’s the most blatant example of the film of talking at its audience, but far from last. For over two wearying, overwritten hours, the film follows Sloane (Jessica Chastain) as she schemes, puts opponents in their place, and delivers devastating bon mots as others look on with surprise, admiration, or disdain, depending on the situation and which side of the film’s central issue their characters fall. Miss Sloane’s heroine is driven by her craftiness, but the film has all the subtlety of a hammer repeatedly hitting an anvil.
That’s a shame for a number of reasons, a great cast among them. Since she came to wide attention in 2011 — the year she became inescapable thanks to films like Tree of Life and Take Shelter — Chastain has established herself as an actress of tremendous nuance, a gift she can’t put to much use in a big, showy role that finds her struggling the find the humanity of a character that’s mostly an assemblage writerly contrivances. She’s a hard-driven, pill-popping, hyper-verbose career woman who dines every night at the same noodle shop, ignores her doctor’s orders to get some sleep, and compartmentalizes any need for intimacy into regular visits to a kindhearted, hardbodied escort (Jake Lacy). One more quirk — maybe a passion for football or opera? — and she could be the protagonist of an ABC series.
As the film opens, she’s leading a team of young turks at a lobbying firm overseen by George Dupont (Sam Waterston), a DC lifer eager to land the business of “the gun lobby,” the fig leaf term the film uses to avoid mentioning the NRA. And though the film immediately establishes Sloane as ethically flexible, she laughs in the face of a gun client pitching a plan to promote gun rights as a woman’s issue. This gets the attention of Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong), the head of a boutique lobbying firm dedicated to passing gun legislation, currently a bipartisan-friendly bill promoting background checks. Leaving Dupont behind, Sloane and the members of her team who follow her— who are joined by Esme Manucharian (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) an anti-gun lobbyist with a personal connection to the issue — decide to take on the biggest challenge of their career.